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By Baroness Fox
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By Association of Former Members of Parliament

A House for everyone: a case for modernising Parliament

4 min read

The social make-up of the House of Commons has shifted dramatically over the past 100 years and particularly over recent decades. While Parliament has become more diverse, much more needs to be done to ensure our MPs and their experiences truly represent the world outside of Westminster.

The increased presence of women MPs has transformed our laws and policies but these women have faced significant challenges – challenges which are particularly apparent for Black and minoritised, and disabled women. (At Fawcett we use the term "minoritised," coined by the sociologist Yasmin Gunaratnam, as it highlights that "people are actively minoritised by others rather than naturally existing as a minority".)

We need to better understand the barriers faced by women in all their diversity – and our political system needs to change to better support a more diverse and modern Parliament. This is why the Fawcett Society carried out a research project to explore how MPs experience and view their role and what they think needs to change to ensure a more representative and inclusive democracy.

The systems, workload, and culture that form a core part of our democracy act as substantial barriers to women’s participation in politics

Concerningly, just 37 per cent of women compared to 55 per cent of men MPs agreed that the culture in Parliament is inclusive for people like them. In addition to this, three key “push” factors – those which reflect a retention risk for MPs – emerged.

Firstly, MPs described their roles as “all-encompassing”, with expansive workloads accompanied by long and unpredictable hours. In our survey, those with caring responsibilities were more likely to report a negative impact of the parliamentary schedule on how they feel about their role – 47 per cent, compared to 37 per cent of those without caring responsibilities. Of course, the role of an MP must evolve to meet changing needs, particularly in the current cost of living crisis. However, it is also clear that the systems to support MPs with these challenges require reform. Caregiving must not be a barrier to participation. Specifically, and echoing Sarah Child’s recommendation in The Good Parliament, we are calling for the introduction of a division time and core business hours.

Secondly, MPs described an exclusionary parliamentary culture. Sexism is common, with 69 per cent of women MPs and 49 per cent of all MPs reporting that they had witnessed sexist behaviour in Parliament in the last five years. Our interviews with MPs shone light on an intersectional culture of othering, extending to racism, ableism, and classism. Much needs to be done to unravel these embedded cultural and sexist norms. It is clear that parties must review their internal sexual harassment and complaints policies to ensure they are best practice. Critically, we also need the establishment of a parliamentary accountability mechanism that oversees inclusivity reforms and reports publicly on progress made.  

Thirdly, online abuse is rampant. This has serious, real-life consequences, with a significant majority of MPs – 72 per cent – reporting that concerns around safety impacted how they feel about their role. In total, 93 per cent of women and 76 per cent of men MPs reported that online abuse or harassment negatively impacted their feelings about being an MP, as did all Black and minoritised MPs in our survey. The abuse is often misogynistic and racist in nature and takes a significant emotional toll on MPs and their families.

Not only does this abuse present a real risk of exacerbating existing under-representation for targeted groups, but it is having a silencing effect on MPs. In total, 73 per cent of women MPs in our survey agreed that “they do not speak up on certain issues because of the abusive environment online,” compared to 51 per cent of men, whilst MPs spoke of being “deliberately uncontroversial” or “placating” in their use of social media. Increasing the gender sensitivity of the Online Safety Bill will go some way toward increasing the accountability of online platforms, and it is crucial to ensure that the Electoral Commission and local police are sufficiently resourced to enforce legal sanctions for intimidating candidates during election periods – when heightened levels of abuse occur.

The case for modernising Parliament is stark. The systems, workload, and culture that form a core part of our democracy act as substantial barriers to women’s participation in politics. They risk pushing women, particularly Black and minoritised, and disabled women, out of politics prematurely. These “push factors” conspire to shut many women’s voices out of politics. The Fawcett Society urges the government, parliamentary authorities and political parties to adopt our report’s recommendations, so that together we can create a House for everyone.

Alex Shepherd is Senior Policy and Public Affairs Officer, Fawcett Society

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